B urn After Reading, Ethan and Joel Coen's return to way-out comedy after the rewarding rigors of No Country for Old Men, involves agents of various kinds (CIA, the Treasury) who can shoot straight but can't think straight. It's a sophisticated goofball - a Bizarro-world version of the betrayals and reversals in solemn movies like Breach and Good Shepherd - except it doesn't supply much of a kick.
Sure, it has a demented tapestry of backgrounds and locations, ranging from CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., to a suburban gym where all the workers wear red shirts. And it boasts a Cracked magazine roster of characters, including Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand as, respectively, doltish and body-obsessed gym workers; George Clooney as a philandering U.S. Treasury Department agent; John Malkovich as a burned-out CIA agent; and Tilda Swinton as this former CIA man's fed-up, straying wife. The movie is so fleet and silly that it's sometimes disarming.
What makes it most like burlesque espionage is the way it self-destructs like the orders in Mission: Impossible.
The script is clever and would be brilliant if it worked. The Coen brothers' scenario ties the most outrageous extortions to the most unthinking, elemental motivations: the female gym worker's desire to get a Hollywood body with some expensive plastic surgery, the CIA wife's move to get a divorce using an expensive lawyer, and the Treasury agent's propensity to get some cheap or expensive thrills whenever his flame flicks him the wrong way.
The movie lacks internal combustion. It's more willfully silly than peppy or convulsive and more like a lava lamp than lava.
You can't fault the ensemble.
Although Clooney can be frantic when acting for the Coens (as in Intolerable Cruelty), he eventually finds a rhythm here. He locates the warped humanity in a sex addict who is equally drawn to exercise. A healthy bout of lovemaking triggers his urge to have a good run rather than drink champagne or smoke a cigarette. Clooney gives us the sexual swordsman as an infantile creature of habit. When he's disappointed with another gal, he cell-phones his long-neglected wife as if calling for his mommy.
McDormand almost succeeds in turning the movie into a testament to the power of positive thinking. She delivers an indomitable rendering of a relentlessly upbeat candidate for cosmetic cutting of all types. A woman who hates her body would logically be filled with self-loathing. McDormand takes a flying leap beyond all that. She's playing someone who's always thinking of her next giant step forward.
I wish Pitt had more to do than play dumb. He's gutsy and inventive, making his physique resemble a Marcel Duchamp painting: Man Working a StairMaster. It's as if his unbridled body consciousness has drowned out any other kind of consciousness.
Pitt's clownishness underlines the weakness of the movie: It's so deliberately absurd and, at the same time, too simplistically absurd. The always-welcome J.K. Simmons plays the highest-level CIA official we see, and in a mere two scenes, he wipes the movie clean. He views the CIA's job not as solving mysteries or even dexterously analyzing data but as eliminating complications. This character registers so lethally and swiftly not because of Simmons' strength, but because his point of view mirrors the moviemakers'.
In No Country for Old Men, admittedly a different kind of movie, every deathblow counted.
Burn After Reading, though, is almost as feckless as the Coens' hapless remake of The Lady Killers. When the Coen brothers kill off characters in this film, they don't just lack dramatic punch. They lack comic punch, too.
The fates of these characters and the fate of the Earth are too arbitrary and limited in Burn After Reading. Maybe there was a reason the Coens were so good at handling that coldblooded killer Anton Chigurh. The Coens, too, do away with characters as if they're just eliminating complications.
Burn After Reading
(Focus Features) Starring George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich. Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen. Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence. Time 96 minutes.
Do the Coens come close to the wit of Preston Sturges? No cigar. Page 5